Case Open

Did attorney Steve Davis commit suicide, or was he beaten to death by Comanche County sheriff’s deputies? We may never know the truth.

ON THE NIGHT OF NOVEMBER 22, 1995—Thanksgiving Eve—Sergeant Mark Bergmark and reserve officer James Purcell of the Comanche County Sheriff’s Department had nothing more pressing to do than drive around Lake Proctor, a meandering body of water on the Leon River eighty miles southwest of Fort Worth. Purcell was new on the job, and Bergmark wanted him to be familiar with the roads on which he’d most likely encounter drunk drivers. Sure enough, at about nine, the deputies noticed a pickup truck roll through a stop sign on FM 2861, pull onto Texas Highway 16, and begin to weave erratically. Bergmark flipped on his flashing lights and pulled the truck over. Behind the wheel was a 38-year-old local, Steve Davis.

That brief opening incident in the Steve Davis story is beyond dispute; little else is. To ask what happened later that night and in the ensuing weeks and months is to lift the lid on a Texas version of Rashomon that continues to baffle area residents and torture Davis’ friends and relatives, even though his  family recently reached an out-of-court settlement with Comanche County.

Bergmark recognized the handsome curly-haired man who got out of his truck that night: He had arrested him the year before on a DWI charge. But he might have known him anyway. Davis was the eldest son of a well-respected family and a high school football hero from the early seventies—one of the best kickers the Comanche Indians ever had. Upon graduating from Comanche High, he had enrolled at Tarleton State University in Stephenville and then St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, and after that he’d returned home and hung out a shingle. Around the Comanche County courthouse, he had a reputation as a crusader who flouted convention but was quick to stand up for the weak and the defenseless. “He always felt like he was a lawyer for the little people,” says his sister, Fredda Jones.

“He had ongoing trouble with the local constabulary,” says Comanche attorney Jim Parker, who hired him fresh out of law school. “He had no respect for their authority.” Parker, who served four terms in the Texas House before going to work as Ann Richards’ legislative liaison in 1991 and 1992, remembers that if a judge ordered Davis to wear a tie in court, he’d put on one with a naked woman on it or throw a shoestring around his neck—anything to twit the establishment. “Steve was kind of a free spirit,” he says. “He’d bring in five new clients and no new money. That’s why we finally had to part company. But he was a writer and a poet and a damn good trial lawyer.”

By the time Davis was pulled over, he was making a living another way: He was bagging peanuts and driving a forklift at the Golden Peanut plant outside De Leon. During the federal government’s amnesty program for illegal immigrants in the late 1980’s, he had been convicted of forging papers for agricultural workers who wanted to qualify. He spent eighteen months in the federal minimum-security prison at Fort Worth and lost his law license; with Parker’s help he had been trying to get it back.

According to the sheriff’s department log, Bergmark and Purcell stopped Davis at 9:16 p.m. Davis got out and told them he was on his way to see his sister in Comanche, about five miles away. When Bergmark asked to see his driver’s license, Davis told him it was in the glove compartment—but instead of retrieving it, he jumped back into the truck, locked the doors, and drove off. Bergmark and Purcell headed for Davis’ house, which was near the shore of the lake not far from where they had stopped him.

What happened next depends on who you ask. Parker tells it this way: “The local sheriff’s office stopped Steve with some degree of regularity. He knew the law, and they didn’t, so after they stood around for a while, he cranked his pickup up and drove home. Half an hour later they busted in his front door and beat the shit out of him. Neighbors heard the noise and saw the deputies come out in the front yard and give each other a high five. They hauled him in to jail and then took him to a doctor.”

On the advice of counsel, neither the officers nor Comanche County Sheriff Billy Works is talking to the press, but Works said at the time of the beating that Davis was taken directly to the emergency room. While Davis was being treated for lacerations on his knuckles, he told an emergency medical technician that he took responsibility for the incident and that he had fought the deputies with a chair. “He said it out of our presence,” Works told a reporter.

Still, Davis later alleged that Bergmark and Purcell had used excessive force. In January 1996 a Comanche County grand jury reviewed the incident and took no action. Davis’ comments in the emergency room were reportedly entered into the record. Three months after that, Davis pleaded guilty to a charge of evading arrest and paid a $500 fine.

But the matter wasn’t over, at least as far as he was concerned. That spring, working with Parker and another Comanche attorney, Keith Woodley, he began preparing a lawsuit naming Works and the two officers, claiming his civil rights had been violated. He did so even though, according to his sister, he feared retaliation. “He was terribly nervous,” she says. “He would come by the house, go to the window, and pull back the curtains and look out.” Steve told Jim Parker they would catch him out some night and he would “resist arrest” and they would kill him.

On May 17 Davis dropped by Parker’s office to pick up the petition. He mentioned that he might soon win an award from the Austin Poetry Society and was driving to Austin the next day to attend the group’s awards

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